Review: Jaco Bouwer’s ‘Breathing In’

Breathing In Review - 2023 Jaco Bouwer Movie Film

Vague Visages’ Breathing In review contains minor spoilers. Jaco Bouwer’s 2023 movie features Michele Burgers, Sven Ruygrok and Jamie-Lee Money. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.


With Breathing In, filmmaker Jaco Bouwer strips away all the earthly visual flair of his previous feature, Gaia (2021, Hulu), in favor of economical storytelling. Set in 1901 South Africa, the 105-minute thriller opens with historical context for the Second Boer War, in which British forces established concentration camps in South Africa as a “Scorched Earth” policy against the the South African Republic and the Orange Free State, resulting in a guerrilla uprising and the destruction of local cultures. Breathing In effectively deconstructs themes of eternity, loyalty and slow strategy — it’s a timely tale about the horrors of war.

As a chamber piece production, Breathing In primarily takes place in a candle-lit home. Bouwer immediately infuses a sense of dark romanticism via chiaroscuro lighting and strong character staging, almost like bringing a Caravaggio portrait to life. As a sick British general (Lionel Newton) dreams about a lost battle, a South African woman (Michele Burgers as Anna) and her young daughter (Jamie-Lee Money as Annie) watch over the man. When a British lieutenant (Sven Ruygrok as Brand) arrives, he experiences a dream-like state while falling in love with the girl and learning that she only travels at night with her mother because they “can’t stand the sunlight.” And so it’s quickly implied that the South African women must possess supernatural abilities, allowing them to survive the surrounding carnage. Breathing In may seem boring when compared to the more aesthetically pleasing Gaia — a trippy thriller about survivalists and fungus-covered monsters — but it’s arguably a stronger piece of filmmaking.

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Breathing In Review - 2023 Jaco Bouwer Movie Film

Whereas Gaia expands the mind with its imagery and messaging, Breathing In doesn’t provide much to chew on, in terms of character backstories and the historical aspect. But much like Caravaggio and the cinematic master John Ford, Bouwer encodes plenty of information within each frame, and also through each camera movement (courtesy of cinematographer Jorrie van der Walt). The film’s most memorable image, as featured on the poster, thematically aligns with the classic John Wayne shot from Ford’s The Searchers (1957), while peppered visuals of fire and violence feel more like Game of Thrones (2011-19).

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Breathing In Review - 2023 Jaco Bouwer Movie Film

Of course, Breathing In is fundamentally about South African culture and survival, rather than staying true to genre norms, so it makes sense that Bouwer stays focused on the character dynamics, specifically the mother’s dark backstory, her daughter’s need to stay awake and the lieutenant’s flabbergasted demeanor. Who really has the power? Men with weapons? Or survivors who can turn the tables with their minds?

The aforementioned Burgers carries the load as Anna, a man-hating woman who reveals a dark secret about a past relationship, which in turn greatly affects Brand’s state of mind. Unlike Gaia, Bouwer doesn’t make any grand statements about the world, or war, through character dialogue. Instead, he seems invested in a “cage” concept that also powers his 2021 film. And this works perfectly in Breathing In when paired with the film’s Caravaggian qualities, with young Annie functioning as the wide-eyed subject of a painting like “Bacchus” (1596) and the older Anna operating as the arguably tainted fruit. In this hellscape, the concept of “mind over matter” means everything.

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Breathing In Review - 2023 Jaco Bouwer Movie Film

Burgers is a fiercely talented actress with a voice that’s suitable for her mysterious character. She’s entirely believable with her snarls and snaky movements, but she’s also a beautiful woman, and so there’s a bizarre dynamic at play as Anna becomes more vocal about her intentions. Similarly, Burgers’ co-stars possess obvious talent and charm, with Ruygrok rocking a variety of fantastic facial expressions and the gorgeous Money looking somewhat like Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s Joan of Arc from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, and staged like Anna Karina’s Nana Kleinfrankenheim — who watches The Passion of Joan of Arc in a movie theatre — from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 French New Wave flick Vivre sa vie.

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Breathing In isn’t necessarily a minimalist masterpiece; however, Bouwer did indeed make a mesmerizing film about infected minds and ideologies. Annie, the youngest character, emerges as the heart and soul, evidenced by a bittersweet line such as “My heart aches” right after a pivotal moment. She refuses to sleep and refuses to turn a blind eye, much like dispossessed guerrillas and/or survivors who may lose several battles but still continue on with a war, regardless of whether it’s internal or external.

Breathing In premiered on October 18, 2023 at the Brooklyn Horror Festival via XYZ Films.  

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.

Breathing In Review: Related — Know the Cast: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Review: Jaco Bouwer's 'Breathing In'
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Review: Jaco Bouwer's 'Breathing In'
"'Breathing In' effectively deconstructs themes of eternity, loyalty and slow strategy -- it's a timely tale about the horrors of war."
Q.V. Hough
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Vague Visages
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